London Is Not What It Was (And That’s A Good Thing)


‘If you ‘go out’ – and who doesn’t these days? – you’ll need this.’

So begins one popular 1940s travel guide. The concept of ‘going out’ seems relatively recent in the UK, which explains a hell of a lot.

In 1952 a gentleman named John Metcalf decided to produce a book about London with a difference. He felt it should be a guidebook with practical use, as helpful as the legendary ‘A-Z’, not a dry lexicon but something to be popped into the pocket whenever one visited the capital. It sold for five bob (half a crown paperback) and set out to be;

‘The guidebook for accuracy, brevity, convenience, detail, easy-reading, facts, gourmets, humour, information, junketing, knowledge, liveliness, method, nightlife, originality, parties, quick reference, reliability, sightseeing, time saving, usefulness, visitors, Xmas, yourself & zest.’ Could he not think of a W?

It is wonderfully of its time. The section on Shopping is subdivided with ‘Women’s Shopping’, where you can get ‘everything from a pin to a peignoir‘, and includes ‘Stocking Repair’. The men’s shopping priority list is telling, starting with Cigars, Pipes, Waistcoats, Hats, Clothes For Hire and Shooting Sticks.

About bowler hats it suggests that you ‘allow the assistant to give you what he thinks you ought to have. It’s the best way.’ There is something weirdly sexy about a bowler hat, and very occasionally one does see a city gent (or woman) wearing one in the Square Mile.

As the book was being written, the section on Debutantes was fast becoming redundant as that inbred cattle market, flogging off the undesirable girls to chinless inheritors, was disappearing with the grand mansions. A Deb, Metcalf said, ‘can usually be recognised at the Berkeley or Quag’s or the Four Hundred by the loudness of her voice and the pinkness of her escort’.

For some bizarre reason the debutant season – one born of necessity in trying to keep those damp country piles going and prevent inbreeding – spread to America, where it took on a different meaning.

The ‘Coming out’ season speaks of a world gone by. In 1951 Moyses Stevens was running a 24-hour flower delivery service, and greyhound racing was still a popular night out all across the city. Mews houses were fashionable and cheap (they were where hawks and falcons were caged, or mewed). Theatre clubs like the Watergate and the New Lindsey operated as what we now call ‘fringe’ and Turkish baths were plentiful, ‘the better to exude last night’s intake of champagne’.

We remember Sundays in London as being awful, dead days – but were they really? The Sunday lunchtime drink was a ritual. It was the time for street markets like Petticoat Lane and Club Row, the orators of Hyde Park Corner, magnificent choral singing in churches, the parks, cinemas and concerts, not so much dull as lazy.

Restaurants had little global cuisine, which was impossibly exotic, but French, Italian, Greek and Spanish were well represented in Soho, and there were quite a few Chinese restaurants, including Ley-Ons (still going). Restaurants were also divided into Dancing and Non-Dancing, with different price lists. Circuses formed a large part of the Christmas family entertainment scene, with Bertram Mills and Tom Arnold’s operating to capacity. I remember going to the former at Olympia as a child.

Zoos were rather different, too. The parrots were all outside on stands where you could feed them, as were camels, zebras and other beasts available for rides, and the chimpanzees’ tea parties were always a highlight. I’m not entirely convinced that the tea parties were cruel; certainly the primates gave every indication of loving them, and with their emphasis on open air and interaction they certainly gave the appearance of being a better idea than locking them in cages alone. Perhaps that only worked in the awfully-well-behaved postwar years.

The London Zoo now is a depressing place, torn between conservation and cruelty. The last time I went the big event was an eco-exhibition of products like handbags made from endangered species, over which they’d been forced to stick a label reading ‘Not For Sale’.

In 1951 shops were subject to early and late closing times, restaurants struggled with little available meat, butter, eggs or cream but ‘the best fish and game in the world’. ‘Don’t be bullied by your wine waiter’ warns the guide. Londoners from this era were a pretty lean-bodied lot, and longevity jumped.

London’s annual events calendar reveals a panoply of activities, including dogs shows, design fairs, royal events, military tattoos, trade shows, regattas, horse shows, art exhibitions, ceremonial parades, balls, poetry readings, jazz, pantomimes, book markets and an entire separate calendar of sporting fixtures.

Finally I note Metcalf’s comment on London police, who ‘have earned the right to be called ‘wonderful’ by their deliberateness of gait, a slow helpfulness of manner and a near-divine sense of dignity’.

A lost time, then, although many vestiges remain.Was it better or worse than today? Neither probably, just different. It was certainly more sure-footed and rooted in tradition, but also dull, slow and conservative, frightened of difference and mainly of  benefit to those further up in the class system.

23 comments on “London Is Not What It Was (And That’s A Good Thing)”

  1. John Howard says:

    Fascinating glimpse into a time capsule…. I especially love your description of Sundays as “not so much being dull but lazy.” Such an apt summing up. Not living in London at the time we didn’t have the delights described but, living in Portsmouth, we had others. My dad and I used to go fishing in our boat every Sunday (one that he had built naturally, these being the high days of D.I.Y.) and would spend a lazy day catching fish for one of the meals that week. We were eating Bass before it was fashionable.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    When looking at old photos, which I do a lot-and not just London but of all Britain, I notice two stand-out things:
    1 (for the better) -how appallingly dirty and unappealing buildings appear in the past due to their being entirely black and soot encrusted. This was before the clean air act, after which many buildings were cleaned. A good example is Halifax. Now you can see the fantastic buildings in all their glory, and the stonework now looks as it is that of a picturesque Cotswold village. They look so much better today.

    2 (for the worse). Street scenes were much more vibrant in the past. Rows of shops and streets full of people using them, enhanced by those wonderful overhanging blinds pulled out over the pavement to protect shoppers from the sun and the rain. I can’t think of the exact name for them! Please help someone. Now so many shops have gone, only to be replaced with those awfully crude looking conversions when they have been turned into a dwelling. Also, so many decent buildings were destroyed in the Blitz. Then there was the second Blitz-the town planners who destroyed so much of what was left in the name of modernity and town planning. Fortunately, many of those appalling concrete boxes and blocks of flats are being pulled down, to be replaced by buildings and houses which are a lot easier on the eye.

  3. Paul C says:

    Brian – awnings ?

  4. Andrew Holme says:

    When they didn’t work, a popular song was ‘Awning Has Broken’. I’ll get me coat.

  5. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks Paul and Andrew. That sounds right. What do use as your finishing song Andrew? Mine is George Formby’s “With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock”

  6. Brian Evans says:

    Thanks Paul and Andrew. That sounds right. What do you use as your finishing song Andrew? Mine is George Formby’s “With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock”

  7. John Griffin says:

    One thing not mentioned is the smell. not only coal smoke to go with black slush, but the rank smell of sweat that many workers had, shirts washed infrequently, women perfumed overly. The hair oil, the barber singeing hair ends, nostrils and ears. Now everything is sanitised and scented in comparison, and sweatiness IS to be sniffed at!

  8. admin says:

    I do recall specific smells from childhood, and let Arthur Bryant quote them in ‘Bryant & May’s Day Off’…
    ‘The mildew in sailors’ clothes long packed away, the scent of tobacco sweetened with amber, the mustiness of horsehair cinema seats.’
    To which could be added, Jeyes Fluid (disinfectant), cigarettes, horse manure, Old Spice aftershave.

  9. Peter T says:

    Jeyes Fluid is one of the happy smells, my Grandad cleaning his greenhouse between seasons. While the other disinfectant, Dettol, is the smell of death; my mother used it for sick rooms. There are the having fun smells: Castrol R, Ambre Solaire, musty wood and leather, … .

  10. Mike says:

    An aunt of mine had a greenhouse and the smell of growing tomatoes takes me back 65 or so years.
    My gran kept chickens and the smell of chicken feed does the same. Instant time travel.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    We didn’t have Jeyes fluid and Dettol was used more for medical things like cuts. Working men going home on the street car or bus – oh, yes, but I somehow didn’t mind that smell then. The awnings (and oh, Andrew, that song is suddenly a hit here) were something I loved in spite of their habit of dripping down your neck. When they disappeared I wondered if store owners didn’t care whether people window shopped at their stores. We lost a lot of buildings, too, and the developers didn’t have the Blitz as an excuse. We’re moving into the era of weirdly shaped buildings and we could do with some people to rename them. We have the Spiral which I think is properly called Vancouver House or some such.
    Transom windows, which figure so largely in stories of that era. There’s a lovely and rightly popular restaurant in old York which has a transom that can arbitrarily fling itself back into the building. Extra lunchtime entertainment. The pattern in many stores here from buildings built in the first 20 years of the 20th century was a transom over the door and non-opening windows of the same size out from the entrance way and across the top of the big windows. Under the windows were patterns of tile, black and white mostly. Ever have those funny “gee-I-miss-that feeling?

  12. Jan says:

    Feel I need to add this to Mr Metcalfs comments about the wonderfully dignified, slowly perambulating officers drifting about their beats giving directions.

    There’s been a long standing “game” played by officers on foot patrols in areas of high tourist traffic. It goes basically like this. There are lots of variations according to venue.

    If in full uniform a bloke is stood next to a high wall with his back towards the wall and leans back against it (for obvious reasons it’s got to be a male officer- a matter of allocated uniform kit you understand before anyone starts wondering) the beat helmet perched on top of his head will lift up and appears to sort of hover halo like above the officers ears. Honestly it does I’m not winding you up.

    It’s actually funniest to watch live it really does look comical you used to get whole serials of officers doing this whilst on central London aid just to make passersby laugh. What you do when you’re bored.

    Well upon the inevitable requests by tourists for photographs taken with the officers one PC would offer to take the picture whilst his mate would lean back against a wall the beat helmet he was wearing would lift and upon their return home after their photos were developed said tourists would be left wondering how on earth the officers headgear appeared to be positioned so far above his ears….

    The second variation (and there are loads more) involves one officer eating lots of liquorice or Black jacks something that would stain the tongue and teeth effectively. The second officer and this is where I did lots of my best photographic work would do the talking and the tourists after the inevitable photo request would group round the officer who had been prepared earlier. This time the photos would feature an officer in full uniform with his tongue stuck out showing an upper + lower set of stained black teeth surrounded by unsuspecting smiling tourists.

    Happy Days.

    There’s a number of other little scams to keep the tourist minds ticking over. I once convinced a band of Canadians the Royal Yacht Britannia was the Commisioners launch and was at the head of a fleet of Thames Division boats. They loved it.

    The best one I ever heard though was a anxious young musician asking directions to the Royal Albert Hall. Some grim old timer simply replied “Practice son. That’ll get you there”

  13. brooke says:

    The training program for the juvenile chimps was very rigorous–think British public school rigorous–acording to research, even their antics were programmed. The animals reach puberty around 7 when they become strong and less pliable. Therefore you need an ongoing supply of young animals; since chimpanzees are not native to UK/Europe think about what that means. And what happened to them when they reached adolescence?

  14. Jan says:

    What did happen to them chimpanzees when they reached adolescence? Did they start auditioning for the tv adverts?
    Or were they recruited into a breeding programme?

    I am just about to set out on my evening walk -serenely drifting around the roads of West Dorzet.
    I might try helpfully supplying directions to passing tractor drivers who will no doubt appreciate the vestiges of my near perfect dignity. Or they might just flick a few reverse “V” signs in my general direction. I’ll give a whirl in any case.

  15. Dave Young says:

    Not only un (or at least infrequently) washed but everyone, everywhere had a fag going. Upstairs on the bus, down below on the tube, between courses at the table next to you in a restaurant or cafe. And this perceived as an individual’s entitlement.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Absolutely, Dave, and you had to watch out for their droppings because they didn’t. Only cigarette I ever touched was the one Dad left on the edge of the bread box while he went in to check a store’s shelves. The box was starting to char so I picked it up. Never tasted anything so foul in my life. That put paid to any smoking. Told Dad and he said, “Good.” Dad died at 69 of circulatory problems caused by smoking since he was 12.

  17. Peter Dixon says:

    London was where Dick Whittington went to seek his fortune.
    London was where generations of repressed and oppressed individuals from all corners of the country went to get away from small-mindedness.
    London looked huge.
    London was scary.
    London was exciting.
    London had lots more history than a 1960’s New Town.
    London had music.
    London had stars.
    London was where everyone wanted to be.
    London was where you made connections.
    London was where you could get lost.
    London was grey, but not as grey as your home town.
    London was a tart.
    London was a promise.
    London was a place you daren’t come back home from unless you were a success.
    London is where everything is.
    London is where you can’t afford to live.
    London is London.

  18. Brian Evans says:

    ….as for Brighton, the late Keith Waterhouse described it thus: “Brighton is the sort of town that looks like it is helping the police with their enquiries”

  19. brooke says:

    Congratulations, Mr. Fowler, on your NHS all clear ….and publication of paperback England’s Finest.

  20. Jo W says:

    Brian Evans,
    Thank you for sharing that quote. I think Keith Waterhouse absolutely nailed it.

  21. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    So glad to hear the good news.

  22. Dawn Andrews says:

    Always hated zoos, even as a child. And felt that chimps tea parties were confusing, kids and chimps? Recipe for disaster. I imagine some parent getting home and wondering why Lavinia is far hairier than expected.

  23. Ian Luck says:

    I’m damn sure, though, that those chimps had better table manners than most people today.

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